In the early hours of 21 April 1944, the combined might of the British and US air forces launched a series of raids on the northern edges of Paris. It was the first time the city had been bombed since the First World War. The assault went on for two days and the results were horrifying – a convent destroyed, entire apartment blocks wrecked, more than 600 people killed, and the quarter of Montmartre drenched in sewage and blood. From the Allied point of view the raid was high-risk and possibly counterproductive: the Normandy landings were only months away and the bombing might have made an already volatile population even more pro-German. In fact, the raids infuriated ordinary Parisians, and gave Marshal Pétain reason to rail against the brutality of the Allied forces.
It is those deadly nights that are the background for Normance, here published in English for the first time and not really a novel, but rather a highly poeticised account of life at street level under the onslaught. There is no real story as such, but rather a nightmarish description of a group of neighbours in Paris – loosely based on Céline and his entourage – who find themselves bombed out on to the streets of the city and into a mini-apocalypse. They drink, argue, search for a lost cat, and look for shelter in the Métro and the local bar. The prevailing tone of delirium and ever-present danger makes this no easy read: Céline’s prose is elliptical and staccato, driven by the nerve-shredding tension of surviving a city under siege. Most crucially, the text is written with all the demonic and feverish logic of a hallucination. The effect is mesmerising; in a translation that is fluid, elegant and faithful to the original in both tone and meaning, Céline more than justifies his reputation as one of the best writers of French prose of the 2oth century, on a par with Proust and Camus.
This book is also both compelling and disturbing because it was written by and from the point of view of a virulently pro-Nazi anti-Semite. Céline became famous in the 1930s as the author of the bestselling Journey to the End of the Night, an account of Parisian lowlife that was praised by Gide, Trotsky and Orwell. By the end of the decade, Céline was notorious as the author of a series of “pamphlets” that called for the extinction of the Jewish race and argued for Hitler as the saviour of Europe. He welcomed the arrival of the German forces as “a necessary tonic”, writing: “If you really want to get rid of Jews then you need racism: and it must be total and inexorable. Like complete Pasteur sterilisation.”
By 1943, Céline’s only disappointment was that the war had not been destructive enough. Unsurprisingly, by the time he came to write Normance, he was one of the chief targets of the Resistance, which posted small black coffins to warn him that he was under sentence of death. When the war was over, Céline barely escaped a firing squad, retreating to his lair just outside Paris after a spell in prison, snarling and unrepentant, muttering still about Jewish conspiracies and the end of the world, his hatred clearly more pathological than political.
But this is precisely why it is essential to read his work. Normance uncovers the real emotional climate of Paris during the Occupation in all its ambiguous, terrible complexity. This is shocking only because the English-speaking countries have never taken seriously the deep reservoirs of poison that ate away at French political life in the 1930s. But the signs had already been there in the art of the period – in a generation that hated the French Republican tradition enough to betray it. By this logic, Céline is not only a great writer, but a prophet, one of the truest and most authentic literary voices of the French 20th century.
Andrew Hussey’s next book, “The French Intifada” will be published by Granta
Dalkey Archive Press, 371pp, £10.99